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Social and Political Theory


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: a 1000-word learning journal (20%) and 3000-word essay (80%)

Module description

We use theory-laden concepts throughout our studies - freedom, power, justice. The moment we pause to explain what they mean, we are theorising. We often use these words without too much explication, and take their meaning for granted. But sometimes that tacit agreement breaks down and we need to think again. That’s when theory happens.

Many significant works in this field are written around moments of historical crisis, when the assumptions that make sense of one’s social and political life fail. Machiavelli seeks to plumb the secrets of power, because Italy in his day is impotent in the face of foreign powers. Hobbes’s theory seeks to reconstruct unity in the face of civil strife. Burke seeks to articulate a vision of sustaining tradition just as the French Revolution ruptures it. Marx emerges from the aftermath of the French Revolution, surveys the suffering inflicted by the industrial revolution, and looks to another political revolution to redeem it. However abstract it may be, social and political theorising is not divorced from reality but seeks to re-engage with it on new terms; and however great its intellectual sophistication, it is driven by conviction and aims to make a difference.

This determines two defining features of the module:

  • First, we study these writings in the historical context in which they were written: to understand them adequately we must do our best to know what they were addressing and what they meant then.
  • Second, we’re concerned with what they have to say to us now. Often the more deeply they engage with their own times, the more powerfully they speak to ours.

Sessions deal with particular thinkers and themes such as justice, freedom or the individual. We are thus able to compare the positions of different writers, draw together the strands of the module and interweave them with our preoccupations in the present.